Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Grade 13 at Ishkabibble Community College

One problem at every college or university is that students think they are moving on to Grade 13. (Some state educational systems even look at it this way.) The consequences for student success are severe, because a high-school approach to learning will lead to failure in college. The impact is probably greatest for under-prepared students at a CC, and more significant for first-in-family students than for ones whose parents went to college. (That said, I have taught children of engineers who act as if they were never told that college classes require more work than high school did. Kids who took AP classes in HS and thought they were an example of a college class are often in for the biggest surprise.) But it is a problem for most students, even ones at elite universities. (See example from JHU linked below.)

Why is "grade 13" thinking a problem? College is different. It has always been different, but now that the majority of students move on to college in the same way they moved from middle school to high school, few think that going to college is a big deal. Everyone does it (sometimes literally everyone), rather than just one or two when my grandfather went to college. Yet it is a big deal, and nobody is telling them just how different it is going to be.

Steven Zucker at Johns Hopkins has done a lot to change the orientation program at JHU. His collection of orientation materials contains lots of information. One particular document from circa 1996, when he wrote an article in the Notices of the AMS, and a later outline of a presentation at orientation provide a good summary of the wakeup call new college students need if they are going to succeed in a true, college-level math or science class.

What would I like to see at ICC orientation?

Some of the differences between high school and college:

1) You had to attend class in high school; you do not have to attend class in college. However, your teachers were required to pass you in high school; we are not required to pass you in college. (You didn't know they had to pass you? See the next item.) There are many college math classes where half of the class does not earn a C or above. A high school teacher would be fired for doing that. The concern in college is not how many students pass the class, but whether every student who passes the class has learned and retained the material taught in the course.

2) You were never taught "at your level" in high school. Your high school teacher was teaching to the bottom 20% of the class, trying to keep the failure rate down to a few percent while giving them the rote skills needed to pass a "high stakes" exit exam. They were teaching to kids who are unlikely to ever go to college, not even to ICC. The teachers were responsible for kids passing their class whether they learned anything or not. In college, you are responsible for learning the material. You are an adult now, not a child. We will gladly help you learn, but that extra help will be outside of class, during office hours.

3) You went to class for 6 or more hours every day in high school, but only go to class for a few hours in college. Lots of time to work or party! !! Yes, but only if you want a career as a prison guard. If you want to be an engineer or doctor or nurse or business professional, you have to spend several hours doing homework for every hour in class. Most learning takes place outside class.

One year of high school Spanish equals one semester of college Spanish. How do we do this? We don't. You do. You do things outside of class that high school teachers made you do in class.

Another example:
We teach a math class at ICC that "covers", in just 15 weeks, all of the material taught in a common two-year high school algebra sequence (algebra 1a and 1b). We do this while only meeting 3 times a week. How do we "cover" 320 days of material in 45 days? We don't. We teach the principles and one or two examples, and you learn it on your own through review and homework.

4) You must do homework outside of class. (Of course, you don't have to do homework, but you also don't have to pass. You must do homework to learn the material, pass the class, and succeed in your career goals.) At least an hour a day for each class, two hours for every hour in class. You must do this even if no one tells you to do it, or collects it, or grades it. You must allow time to contact your instructor during office hours if you need additional help, or organize a study group that meets regularly outside of class.

5) College faculty do not have any time to waste. We don't teach anything that we know will not be needed by some student in their next class, and we don't re-teach anything you were supposed to learn in a previous class. (We might review it while doing an example, but we will not teach it as a separate topic.) If you need to know trigonometry to succeed in a physics or calculus class, we require a trig class as a prerequisite and we expect you to still know the material taught in that trig class when you take our class. We will not waste our time, or those of other students, reviewing material from a class you already attended. If you forgot it the day you left the final exam, you wasted your money and relearning it is your problem. Many low level classes at ICC spend a lot of time reviewing material from a previous class (something you were used to in high school), but that will not be done in higher level classes such as calculus, physics, or the classes you take after you transfer to Wannabe Flagship Tech.

You need to learn for a lifetime, not cram for tomorrow's test.

Links added in May 2008:

When posting a comment on Learning Curves, I noticed I had not directly linked to the comments Zucker published in the Notices of the AMS. The links up above are to pages that describe changes to orientation at John's Hopkins he was involved in. The links below are (mostly) to published articles on this subject:

I'll add the comment that "teaching freshmen to learn mathematics" is not at all the same as teaching mathematics to freshmen. The same applies to physics for future engineers, hence my observations from April 2007 you see up above.


Gem said...

Wow, I wish someone had told me all that way back when! I'm going to have to print this out and save it for when my kids are ready for college.

JLK said...

Great post! Thanks for linking to it from FSP.

As I was reading this, I was thinking about the high school I came from. I went to a private Catholic high school where there was no standardized testing and where the reputation of the school for graduating college-ready students was more important than teacher's pass rates. The mentality was "your parents are paying a lot of $$$ to get you ready for college, so we're going to do just that even if it means holding you back a year."

I struggled at this high school, mostly because I didn't give a crap. I was looking forward to college where I could choose what I wanted to study. But I excelled in higher education because I had the right tools and the experience, regardless of how crappy my grades had been.

It is my view that the standardized testing implemented in public schools since I graduated has killed college prep. They are being TAUGHT to cram for tests by teachers whose jobs and pay depend on whether those students pass. They're not taking literature courses and learning how to discuss and critically think about texts, they're learning how to answer multiple choice questions about a paragraph they read. They're not learning science at ALL, because it's not on the test, so why worry about something that doesn't affect whether or not you graduate.

No Child Left Behind is focused too much on competencies in K-12 education, while ignoring the effects it's having on college educations where we're (theoretically at least) training students for careers.

Doctor Pion said...

Thanks. Although Zucker comes at it from the angle of teaching the third semester of calculus to first semester freshmen at an elite university, his comments resonate across the curriculum and across a wide range of institutions.

I share your experience of having been taught critical reading in a HS class (senior "advanced composition") that put me way in front of my peers when I went to college - which was about when the early NCLB proponents were in college.

My only nit-pick with your closing remark is that I always hope I am EDUCATING them, even though I know I am mostly training them.